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February 17, 2012

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Designers pour on the style for fashion week

FASHION designers, retailers, editors and stylists settled into their routines for eight days of previews at New York Fashion Week, February 9-16, barely blinking at all the camera flashes: a sign of business-as-usual stability.

The luxury market that most of the runway shows speak to has, over the past year, steadily recovered at the retail level despite the volatile economy. The clothes hitting the catwalk in the early going showed a continued confidence in the colorblocking, tailoring and easy, elongated shapes that have been trickling into stores and will arrive in force come spring.

The brands BCBG Max Azria and Richard Chai Love kept colors basic and used hardly any embellishment, turning out straightforward, wearable clothes. Surely there are more flamboyant moments to come, but fashion is, after all, the marriage of art and commerce. Of course, there's the celebrity element, too, and Tadashi Shoji took care of red carpet looks with his Shanghai-visits-Hollywood gowns.

Dozens of shows were held at the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week tents that serve as the hub, with another 12, including Skaist-Taylor and Tory Burch, presenting their shows elsewhere on the Lincoln Center campus.

"We look at every space. The question for me is, 'How do you break open the red velvet ropes'?" said Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, director of fashion at Lincoln Center.

Burch's show, for example, while an invitation-only event, is held in an all-windowed spot so Winston Wolkoff expects passers-by to get a peek.

Big names such as Marc Jacobs, Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein showed later in the week.

Luxury fashion still caters to movie stars, high-powered businesswomen and ladies who lunch, but designers are starting to show interest in that generation's daughters.

Halfway through New York Fashion Week, familiar runway themes like military tailoring, old-school rock 'n' roll, and Hollywood Golden Age glam are showing tweaks designed to appeal to younger eyes: the double-breasted coat in shiny patent leather, tweed suits infused with metallics and leather substituted in silhouettes that used to be silk.

"New customers are getting into luxury fashion in a way they weren't before the recession," said Ed Jay, senior vice president of American Express Business Insights.

Longtime clients who bought full-ticket designer clothes before the economy soured have proven loyal, but they aren't buying as much as they used to, Jay said. But the luxury market is seeing new interest among Gen Y fashionistas, who didn't used to buy much high-end but are now starting to, spurred in part by the ease of online purchases. "Newcomers don't spend as much per ticket, but there are more of them," he said.

And while designers hope their new collections will inspire spending by shoppers young and old, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Fashion Week is an increasingly profitable enterprise for the city. At an appearance with Diane von Furstenberg on Monday, Bloomberg announced the twice-yearly shows are expected to generate an economic impact of US$865 million for the city in 2012.

The number, calculated by the city's Economic Development Corporation, is up from an estimated US$773 million in 2007.

"We are the fashion capital of the world. The buzz it creates helps underscore our city's reputation as a cutting-edge capital of fashion, home to more than double the number of fashion companies in Paris," Bloomberg said.

Here's a look at some of the shows from the week.

It's all about the shoes

It's a blustery day - February tends to be that way in New York - and Marian Kihogo, a fashion stylist and blogger from London, is dashing from one runway show to another around Manhattan.

As she strides by on her "architectural heels" by Nicholas Kirkwood for Peter Pilotto, the heels hollowed out for artistic effect, this reporter dares to suggest she might be more comfortable in running shoes.

She laughs. "Running shoes! That would be fashion suicide. I think the fashion powers-that-be would stone me!"

An exaggeration? Maybe a bit. Kihogo is merely giving a colorful rendition of an unspoken rule at Fashion Week: It's all about the shoes. And we're not talking about the models. We're talking about the audience.

Never mind the snow, rain or sleet. Never mind the subway steps or the long hours on one's feet. Most Fashion Week regulars wouldn't be caught dead without a pair of statement heels.

At a packed Fashion Week party a few nights earlier, Clement Z., a stylist from Shanghai, says shoes are the most important part of the whole outfit. "I tell my clients: Buy the most basic outfits, but follow the trends of shoes every season."

Vera Wang uses smoke and mirrors

Vera Wang was going for sensual in her fall styles presented on Tuesday at New York Fashion Week. She succeeded.

Suggestive, sheer champagne-colored layers covered many of the models, showing nothing the audience shouldn't see - or did they?

"A sensual silhouette - long, narrow, leggy - extending from a high neckline, caught at peplumed hips," Wang said in her notes left for the editors, stylists and retailers who, after six days of previews, are starting to see this sultry muse emerge.

Peplum, a flounce or flourish of fabric attached to the waist or hips of a garment, is showing up often in lines for this season.

There also were comforting, rich touches of boucle (nubbly yarn) and fur, offset by glitzy, crystal-mesh embellishment.

"Clothing as sanctuary: The body protectively enveloped in the soft armor of a fitted sheath, the sharp discipline of fencing-inspired jackets, the structured carapace of a coat," the designer explained. "The female form revealed by smoky transparencies that allow a glimpse of skin and of delicate lingerie not meant to be hidden, but seen."

Basically, Wang described it all, and the crowd could have gone home with just that, but then they would have missed Wang doing her artsy thing that makes her a consistent favorite.

"She's a woman and she owns it. She's smart, quick and funny," said actress Leighton Meester.

Meester said she came to the show at Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week to support "Vera and all her wonderfulness. I am a big fan."

Meester was joined in the front row by Renee Zellweger and Viola Davis. But would one of the designer's admirers be daring enough to don Wang's blue chiffon gown with a high neck created by a multi-layer organza flange on the red carpet. It's a risk that would likely pay off.

Marc Jacobs's runway lands in a forest

Marc Jacobs, always the showman, turned his New York Fashion Week show into a mystical forest on Monday night. He presented his fall collection amid an old-school fairy tale, complete with characters wearing oversized fur hats and embellished big-buckle shoes. There were hints of Victoriana, with bustles tacked on to some of the dresses, and a sequined faux-fur coat that appeared to be covered in snowflakes.

Nearly hidden amid the onstage drama unfolding at the Lexington Avenue Armory were beautiful pieces of outerwear and chic cocktail clothes. The palette had rich tones of purple and bottle green, with a good dose of celebratory silver sparkle.

Jacobs continued to push fashion forward with fabrics that included sequin holograms and tinsel tweed. And his Shetland wool stoles turned into a trend for fall before the audience left.

Jacobs is known for incredibly original and dramatic Fashion Week presentations, but as the undisputed fashion star of New York, he'd have the crowd's attention no matter what he did. So it's almost as if he puts on the inventive shows for his own amusement.

With Jacobs' reputation for influential fashion hits, he can risk theatrics on the runway in a way that a designer who's still trying to prove himself never could, observed Hal Rubenstein, fashion director of InStyle magazine.

"There's a set, there's an enormous sound system, great lighting. This is what a fashion 'show' is supposed to be," he said.

DVF puts the puzzle together

Diane von Furstenberg let the crowd attending New York Fashion Week in on a little secret Sunday: Fashion is a puzzle.

Von Furstenberg, who as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America is the de facto leader of the American fashion community, used jigsaw puzzle pieces as a prominent theme of her fall collection, presented to a packed house that included her friends Oscar de la Renta, Anderson Cooper, Diane Sawyer and Barbara Walters.

There was a puzzle print on a pink sleeveless dress and laser-cut pieces on a black embellished one. A model carried a puzzle-box bag.

She described her muse of the season in her notes: "With a heightened awareness to the promise of places she has not yet been, people she has not met yet, she wraps herself in layers of opposing dimensions, ready for anything. Practiced in the art of innuendo, she commands sleek silhouettes with sheer accents cut to reveal just enough."

Von Furstenberg named the collection "Rendezvous" and she alternated between sophisticated, simple and sometimes smoldering jersey dresses in dark colors and fun cocktail numbers in bright, almost tropical shades of pink, lime green and bright blue.

Jason Wu revisits Chinese roots

Jason Wu has arrived. The confidence he's feeling in his emerging success was evident at New York Fashion Week, where his dramatic show featured a collection inspired partly by his Chinese roots.

He has been considered a strong up-and-comer since Michelle Obama wore a gown by the then-barely known designer to the presidential inaugural balls in 2008, and his show has increasingly become a hot ticket during the seasonal previews. Then came a Target deal that put a limited collection in stores earlier this month.

Maybe it's with that confidence that he went all out for his runway show, with studded fortress doors, billowing smoke, a theatrical finale and a highly personal Chinese-influenced collection that captured the yin-yang of tough military dress and in-your-face luxurious embellishment.

Wu grew up in Taiwan, but hadn't visited there in years until a trip about 18 months ago. "I almost went back as a foreigner with fresh eyes," he said.

He tapped into Chinese military uniforms with Mao jackets, grommets, strong shoulders and capes - the best of that look being the green coat with attached cape and black lace that opened the show. A different sort of strength, however, is found in the ornate trappings of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and the tassels, embroideries and brocades worn by empresses.

The common thread among the elements is strength, he added, "and I had to inject myself and my generation, so I did that with sportswear." The result? Puffy jackets in glitzy brocade.


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